15 Oct Book Review of The Water Dancer by Ta-nihisi Coates
Ta-nihisi Coates’s debut novel, The Water Dancer, resonated with me on so many levels. There is the story itself—an intriguing tale about Hiram Walker, whose mother is born into bondage and sold away when he is a small child, by the master of Lockless Plantation, the man who is also his father.
Hiram is gifted with a photographic memory, which causes his father to notice, to bring him up to the big house when he is eleven, and assign him to wait on his brother and heir to the plantation. While driving brother Maynard home from the racetrack, the carriage runs off of a bridge, and everyone is plunged into the raging current below. Maynard perishes in the water and Hiram nearly drowns as well, but he is mysteriously called back by the vision of his mother dancing on the bridge, and the voices in his memory of all the slaves at Lockless who have been sold off and transported across that bridge, southward to Natchez.
His near-death experience convinces Hiram that he must get out and find freedom. After his escape through the Underground Railroad, he becomes a valuable asset as an operative in the rescue of other slaves, or Tasked, who have been sold off from the soil-leached plantations in Virginia and sent westward to the more fertile lands in the Delta of the Mississippi.
Despite his perfect memory, Hiram is plagued by his inability to remember his mother.
I tried to recall her face, and when it did not come, I thought of her arms, her hands, but there was only smoke, and when I searched to remember her corrections, her affections, I found only smoke. She’d gone from that warm quilt of memory to the cold library of fact.
But if he is to unleash his God-given gift of memory in the service of the Underground, he must confront the circumstances that caused him to forget her. Hiram witnesses the mysterious power of Conduction through an escape led by the great Harriet Tubman, and he becomes determined to develop his own powers to free Thena, who has raised him as a second mother, and Sophia, the woman he loves.
Through the setting, Lockless Plantation in antebellum Virginia, Coates depicts the shocking reality that the masters, or Quality, attempt to disguise: that the house would have been lost without those who tasked within. Having recently visited Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, the following word picture became even more vivid to me!
The tunnel, where I first entered the house, was the only entrance that the Tasked were allowed to use, and this was not only for the master’s exaltation but to hide us, for the tunnel was but one of the many engineering marvels built into Lockless so as to make it appear powered by some imperceptible energy. There were dumbwaiters that made the sumptuous supper appear from nothing, levers that seemed to magically retrieve the right bottle of wine hidden deep in the manor’s bowels, cots in the sleeping quarters, drawn under the canopy bed, because those charged with emptying the chamber-pot must be hidden even more than the chamber-pot itself. The magic wall that slid away from me that first day and opened the gleaming world of the house hid back stairways that led down into the Warrens, the engine-room of Lockless, where no guest would ever visit. And when we did appear in the polite areas of the house, as we did during the soirees, we were made to appear in such appealing dress and grooming so that one could imagine that we were not slaves at all but mystical ornaments, a portion of the manor’s charm.
But I now knew the truth…The masters could not bring water to a boil, harness a horse, nor strap their own drawers without us. We were better than them–we had to be. Sloth was literal death for us, while for them it was the whole ambition of their lives.
Coates describes the hierarchy of the plantation system as dependent upon three types: The Quality, the Lows, and the Tasked.
Walking toward Market Street we were met by a parade of Virginian splendor. They were all there, the Quality, out there in their masks and garments, the ladies in powdered faces, white gloves, and silk scarves, their bosoms heaving and their parasols helped up by colored girls to preserve the ivory sheen of their skin.
The men all seemed in uniform–black coats, cinched at the waist, gray trousers, horsehair stocks, stove-pipe hats, walking sticks and calf-skin Wellingtons. As always they left the captain’s share of glamour to their women, trussed in corset and bodice so that they walked slow, measuring all their movement. But there was still a dance in how they moved, with their swanning necks and their swaying hips. I knew they’d been learning to walk like this all their lives, under mistresses and mothers, because it was never the costume that made the Quality, but how the lady wore it.
The low whites, men such as our Harlan, were tolerated publicly by the Quality, but spurned in private; their names were spat out at banquets, their children mocked in parlors, their wives and daughters seduced and discarded. They were a degraded and downtrodden nation enduring the boot of the Quality, solely for the right to put a boot of their own to the Tasked.
The low whites enjoyed only a toehold in the craggy face of society, and insecure position, which only augmented the brutal spirit they so often visited upon the coloreds of Virginia. This brutality was the offering Quality made to the low whites, the payment that united them.
Slavery is everyday longing, is being born into a world of forbidden victuals and tantalizing untouchables–the land around you, the clothes you hem, the biscuits you bake. You bury the longing, because you know where it must lead. But now this new longing held out a different feature, one where my children, whatever travails, would never know the auction block. And once I glimpsed that other future, My God, the world was born anew to me. I was freedom-bound, and freedom was as much in my heart as it was in the swamps, so that the hour I spent waiting on our meeting was the more careless I had ever spent. I was gone from Lockless before I had even run.
White Women: A Peculiar Bondage
As a woman who also happens to be white and Southern, I particularly identified with the character of Corinne Quinn, who Hiram describes as the most fanatical agent on the Underground:
All of these fanatics were white. They took slavery as a personal insult or affront, a stain upon their name. They had seen women carried off to fancy, or watched as a father was stripped and beaten in front of his child, or seen whole families pinned like hogs into rail-cars, steam-boats, and jails. Slavery humiliated them, because it offended a basic sense of goodness that they believed themselves to possess. And when their cousins perpetrated the base practice, it served to remind them how easily they might do the same. They scorned their barbaric brethren, but they were brethren all the same. So their opposition was a kind of vanity, a hatred of slavery that far outranked any love of the slave. Corrine was no different, and it was why, relentless as she was against slavery, she could so casually condemn me to the hole, condemn Georgie Parks to death, and mock an outrage put upon Sophia.
Corrine describes for Hiram the particular kind of bondage she has had to overthrow as a white woman of means:
Some of us have been down since the days of Rome. Some of us are born into society and told that knowledge is rightfully beyond us, and ornamental ignorance should be our whole aspiration.
The mind of the woman is weak–this was the word, you see. But then they say that any and all who would aspire to the rank of lady must have some touch of the book. But not too much. No hard study. Nothing that might injure the delicate and girlish mind. Novel. Tales. Proverbs, that sort of thing. No papers. No politics.
But I have not let them dictate to me, Hiram, she said, holding the envelope. And I have not simply read, my boy. I have learned their language and their custom–even those that should be beyond my station, especially those that should be beyond my station, and that has been the seed of my liberty.
A Must-Read Novel for Our Time
In The Water Dancer, Ta-nihisi Coates has given us a well-crafted and beautiful story, as well as a history lesson revealing the hideous face of slavery, as it rips and tears apart the bonds of family and friendship among the Tasked, solely to protect the interest and well-being of the Quality. The novel also offers numerous talking points for groups who desire to understand the roots of the racial tension that grips our society today, so that we may confront our past, seek atonement for it, and find common ground moving forward.
This is a book to put at the top of your reading list!